Kate Braestrup's "Beginner's Grace"

Which came first: the ecstasy or the laundry?

Once upon a time, the sage Rashi and his grandson the sage Rabenu Tam had a disagreement about the order in which passages should be written in the tefillin which are worn on the head. And earlier this week, my hevruta partner David and I studied a text from the Kedushat Levi which explores this disagreement and its implications. (If you need a refresher on what, exactly, tefillin might be, here are a few links: Ode to my tefillin [2011], Connections [2005], and Surprises [also 2005].)

Okay, on to the disagreement and the question about what it means. In a set of tefillin there are two boxes: the shel yad (which goes on the bicep) and the shel rosh (which goes on the head.) In the head-tefillin there are four passages: two from Exodus, which talk about remembering the Exodus from Egypt and which make specific mention of tefillin (that's Exodus 13:1-10 and Exodus 13:11-16, for those who are interested), and two from Deuteronomy which we now know as part of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and Deuteronomy 11:13-21.) So two passages are about the Exodus, and two passages are about God's unity and about the blessings we will receive if we commit to the path of mitzvot. (With me so far?)

Rashi held that after the two passages about the Exodus, the tefillin should contain first the shema (the statement of God's unity which is central to Jewish faith and practice) and then the passage called v'haya im shemoa, "If you truly listen..." (Here is the traditional text  of v'haya im shemoa in Hebrew and in English; and here is Rabbi Arthur Waskow's interpretive rendition of that passage/prayer.) Putting the passages in this order reflects that first we need to accept and experience God's unity, and then we can take on the mitzvot and receive the blessings which will unfold from that.

Rabbenu Tam, Rashi's grandson, held that after the two passages about the Exodus, the Deuteronomy passages should go in the other order: first "if you truly listen..." and then "Hear O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One." In his understanding, we need to commit to the path of the mitzvot before we can truly understand and accept the unity of the divine and the reality that there is nothing else but God. (Even today, tefillin are written in both of these ways -- Rashi tefillin and Rabbenu Tam tefillin -- and many Hasidim wear both sets.)

Kedushat Levi argues that when we really remember the Exodus from Egypt and its attendant miracles, then we truly feel that God is One and there is none else, and then our hearts are awakened to relate to God in love and in awe. After that, he says, we take that love and awe into our encounter with the shema (the declaration of God's oneness) -- and only then can we wholly take on the mitzvot which are alluded to in that final passage from Deuteronomy. So for him, clearly, the passages in a set of Rashi-style tefillin are written in the right order.

Which is fine, as far as that goes; but I think it's actually a question worth struggling with. Which comes first: the "ecstasy" of connection with something beyond ourselves, or the "laundry" of daily practice? Do we need to have an experience of unity in order to be able to take on the mitzvot (Rashi's stance), or do we need to take on the mitzvot in order to have an experience of unity (Rabbenu Tam's stance)? The question is really: do we need to be able to connect with something beyond ourselves before we can take on religious practice, or do we take on the religious practice precisely in those moments before we've had the connection with something beyond -- which is to say, it's the taking-on of the practice which opens us up to the connection?

I find that I want to have it both ways. On the one hand, I want to argue that it's important to have an experience of connection with unity before (re)dedicating oneself to this, or any, spiritual path. The connection with unity awakens our hearts and opens our eyes, and that in turn enlivens our attempt to live mindfully, devotionally, spiritually, religiously. And on the other hand, I want to argue that sometimes it's important to take on a practice before one completely understands it, before the experience of unity has arisen. (My Tisha b'Av fast earlier this week, for instance.) And I think it's important too to remember that the point of a spiritual practice is that it's a practice -- one practices it regularly, with or without the peak moments of ecstasy and unity. To imagine that one should only take on the practices which one already understands, to which one can already relate, is to greatly diminish the world of spiritual possibility... and also kind of misses the point.

I guess I always want it to be the ecstasy and the laundry.

If you have thoughts on this, I'd love to hear them...